"So did he cry during the interview?" It's the first question my friend asks after I spend the afternoon talking to James Hand. Uh, yeah, tears welled up in his eyes not once but twice during our talk. But then again, aren't genuine tears the ultimate sign of credibility for a traditional country singer and songwriter? And Hand's recent Rounder Records release, The Truth Will Set You Free!, should remind anyone with a beating heart of every heartbroken tear you've shed and every lie from a feckless lover you've painfully discovered to be false.
Willie Nelson declares Hand "the real deal" on the album's back cover, and he ain't hyping. The gaunt 53-year-old from the tiny town of Tokio (just outside the little burg of West) has been singing in beer bars and honky-tonks for some 35 years in between training horses and driving trucks and getting tossed in the clink now and again for having an occasional wild hair. He spends a good 20 minutes at the end of our interview out in the parking lot of Austin's Broken Spoke smacking around a radar gun he bought in a junk shop, trying to get it to work. If that all ain't country, then just what is?
"I could be one of the happiest men in the world right now. But I was writing a song just the other day about how it always stays midnight to me," says Hand, holding back a sniffle as he locks in with the sense memory. The tears also nearly roll as he talks about having to finish the vocals on his album--co-produced by Austin country champions Ray Benson and Lloyd Maines--while his father was on the verge of death. "I'd been crying every day for six months," says Hand, who proverbially dripped those tears onto the tracks of the CD.
James Hand performs at Sons of Hermann Hall on Friday, August 25, with the Boys Named Sue.
Hand's look (his pals call him "Slim"), keening voice, slightly stooped stage stance and simple yet eloquent gutbucket country songs all but beg comparisons with Hank Williams, though he points out that Lefty Frizzell (whom he met at 6 months old just prior to Frizzell's death), Jimmie Rodgers and Tex Ritter are equally apropos antecedents. And Hand isn't one of the many neo-trad country crooners trying to be somebody from the past. "Dennis Quaid asked if I wanted to go to New York and play Hank Williams in a Broadway play. I said, 'No, thank you.' He said, 'Man, Slim, that's a lot of money.' I said, ''bout what you think your soul is worth?'"
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Hand's hit-you-where-you-hurt music attests to how every day is a struggle with his soul. With his third CD out since 1997, and the first one to get any kind of promotional push, "I'm already a success now from what I was," he says. But then there are those folks back around West whom he's known his whole life and have long chuckled at Slim Hand's decades-long struggle to get his music heard. "I think sometimes I want to be a success for the wrong reasons. I want to be a success and flaunt it to certain people. But that's not the right way to do it."